A piece for Omnified by Emma Krupp
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, the inside of Markthalle Neun, a popular food hall in the eastern end of Kreuzberg, bustled with typical weekend crowds — shoppers browsed the market’s dozens of organic grocery vendors, choosing cuts of Brandenburg short rib and tins of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, or sipped IPAs, chatting and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on wide wooden benches.
But the scene outside the hall revealed a different story. As onlookers peered over their lattes from the attached cafe Kaffee 9, a crowd of around 300 protesters, homemade banners and posters in tow, gathered outside the market’s entrance on Eisenbahnstraße.
They were there, on the surface, for Aldi. Earlier that month, Markthalle Neun owners Nikolaus Driessen, Bernd Maier and Florian Niedermeier announced they would terminate the discount grocer’s contract at the market hall in July and replace it with a dm drugstore by the beginning of 2020.
Yet the rally, held on March 30 and organized by the neighborhood initiative “Kiezmarkthalle – Markthalle 9 für alle,” marked a mere flashpoint in a slow-simmering conflict between Markthalle Neun and a number of resident groups. Residents allege the closure of the Aldi, though planned in the original proposal for the Markthalle, represents a final breakaway from the goal professed by the hall’s owners when they purchased it from the city in 2011: for the market to remain a “Halle für alle,” or hall for everyone.
A few days after the March demonstration, on a Tuesday evening, another 150 people filtered into the spacious western wing of the hall for a public meeting facilitated by the Markthalle owners with the help of Esther Borkam, the leader of the Family and Neighborhood Center of Wrangelkiez. One by one, for more than two hours, attendees took turns speaking at a mic in the center of the room.
They were angry — about the limited opening hours, about drunk tourists who crowd the street during market events, about the price point of the market’s locally-raised beef. They were angry about old and disabled neighbors who would no longer be able to access a discount grocery store by foot once Aldi was gone. They resented being forced to advocate for Aldi, an international supermarket chain that garners more than $98 billion in profit each year (87.5 billion euros), as if they didn’t understand the value of locally-grown food.
Others told stories about what it’s like trying to get by in Kreuzberg, a historically low-income neighborhood that’s now a hotspot for Berlin’s inflating rent prices. The average rent price per square meter rose 9.1% last year in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, according to a 2019 report from German real estate group CBRE and bank Berlin Hyp — the highest increase, percentage-wise, of any neighborhood in the city — even as a quarter of all residents remain on some form of public assistance. They pointed to the rental listings on apartment websites like Airbnb, advertising attractive and expensive properties within walking distance to the Markthalle, and wondered if the market might be behind some of these changes.
“Yeah, neighborhoods change,” said Giles Schumm, who’s lived in an apartment next to the Markthalle for 16 years. “But they got the place on a promise not to do that. If they’d bought it for the top price, they could have a casino and a brothel in there, I could do nothing about it. But they didn’t — and that’s why I keep coming back to that.”
Part of their anger is based in the hall’s historic significance. Built by the city in the late 19th century, Markthalle Neun was one of 14 food halls conceived as part of a plan designed to curb hunger issues in a rapidly-growing Berlin, and functioned for decades as a daily market. But occupancy declined during the Cold War years, and by the late 1990s, its once-bustling corridors stood half empty. The state-owned wholesale market company Berliner Großmarkt GmbH (BGM), which controlled several of the markets, decided to sell the Markthalle property in the late 2000s.
Initial bidders included buyers with starkly different ideas for the hall — like a high-end, Middle Eastern-style bazaar and a large supermarket — incurring the ire of resident groups. In response, BGM put out a call for proposals, offering to sell the property for a reduced price of 1.15 million euros to a buyer who could maintain the community-minded goals of the original space.
Enter Driessen, Meier and Niedermeier. Their sprawling proposal, one of 19 submitted for review, envisioned a daily, regionally-sourced food market — something akin to Borough Market in London or La Boqueria in Barcelona. They wrote in the proposal that it was to be a place where diverse groups of people could gather and shop for fresh, sustainable food, where “people of every age, social class and nationality bustle between the stands.”
Eight years later, the three owners maintain that they’ve kept true to their promises, sticking “very near” to their initial idea, Niedermeier said. The original project proposal outlined a plan to phase out the building’s three remaining discounters, which then included Kik, Drospa and Aldi, before 2016. Niedermeier acknowledged the protesters’ concerns as valid, but he added that the concept was always meant to develop over the course of nine years and remains a work in progress. Beyond that, he said, the points raised by the resident groups should be weighed against others who shop at and use the market regularly — a kind of metaphorical vote about the value of the market within the neighborhood.
“People vote here every day,” he said. “They either come here or they don’t. And we have, so to speak, 150 people who come to these Tuesday meetings and are unhappy. But we also have 7,000 customers who come and shop each Saturday at the market. That’s also a vote.”
A second community meeting, held on April 9 in the same location, stretched until around 11:30 p.m. with back-and-forth debates. But the next community meeting, which is planned to happen within the first few weeks of June, will purportedly include an announcement as to whether Aldi gets to stay. Like the second meeting, it will also be facilitated by the mediator Doris Wietfeldt, who helped arbitrate a dispute between neighborhood groups over noise complaints on the nearby Admiralbrücke in 2010.
For his part, Niedermeier said he’s glad the discussion is happening.
“We have to give an answer as to whether Aldi will stay or go,” he said. “But with certainty, that’s just a part of the answer, because the question is: How is the market developing? Where is the market developing? Who is the market developing for? These questions are bigger than the Aldi question.”
As to what the answers to those questions might be, Niedermeier remained vague, saying he’d rather defer to the ideas from members of the community. Both Kiezmarkthalle and M9 — the two central resident groups involved in the dispute — have their own sets of demands, ranging from the practical (extend its hours of operation from four days a week to six, and to remain open later in the day) to the more wishful (re-communalize the market). Above all, they both believe in keeping Aldi open until more affordable organic food can be provided there on a regular basis.
“We have a lot of problems here,” said Helmut Hamm, the founder of the M9 group. “But before anything else happens, the Aldi has to stay.”